Desiring and Imagining the Kingdom by James Smith (Two [no, Three!] Book Reviews)

Whether when I was in seminary or now in campus ministry, there is a lot of talk among Christians in such circles about worldview. The way it goes is that the university, for example, has a view of the world which is being taught to students in the classroom. Our responsibility as Christians is to teach Christian students a Christian worldview. Usually the emphasis is on the intellect and on belief. Your university professor will teach you to believe one thing but you need to critique that belief and have the correct Christian belief.

One of the main points of James Smith’s fantastic book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, is that this way of engaging with the world buys into a false anthropology.  This wrong idea says that humans are merely thinking creatures whose bodies don’t matter. For this view, the battle happens in the mind and if we change what goes on in the mind then everything else in life will also change. Against this Smith argues (and note he argues, so this is not any sort of anti-intellectual book) that this is not how humans change our behavior. Most of what we do happens precognitively, before we even think rationally about it. We move through life as habitual people, doing things because we have been trained to do them.

We are still responsible for these things as it is our choices and previous actions that create these habits. But changing how we live and act is not as simple as just beginning to believe differently. Smith argues that the world around knows that we are shaped not just by thinking differently, and if the church only focuses on changing minds and beliefs we are doomed to frustration. In the end, Smith offers the Christian liturgy as the format for spiritual formation, it is within such regular rituals and repetitions that new habits are formed. Further, engaging in Christian worship involves our whole bodies, us as we really are, which moves us to change in actions.

Overall this book, and its sequel Imagining the Kingdom:How Worship Works (I am not going to write a different review for that one; note it goes into some of the same ideas more deeply and also opens up new ideas) are a must read for pastors and campus ministers and all who work in ministry. Smith writes from a Reformed perspective (though, not young and restless) but his ideas and conclusions apply to Christians of all stripes. This is one of the most helpful and challenging books I’ve read in a long time in regards to how I do ministry on a regular basis. I know I will be thinking about it and returning to it for a long time.

Postscript: After writing this review I noticed that Smith’s book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, was on sale for only $2.99 for the kindle.  I couldn’t resist.  The “new” Calvinism, which I referenced above as “young and restless” continues to be a big thing in many circles, but it seems that Smith gives a different perspective on the tradition.  My big wish after reading this book is that more Calvinists would pick it up and read it.  I don’t consider myself a Calvinist, but I agreed with over 90% of what he wrote in this book  Much of it centers on topics like the redemption of culture, the place of creeds and the importance of worship and spiritual formation.  I suppose there will always be disagreements between Christians on unconditional election, prevenient grace and other such topics.  And I still have trouble seeing how the way some Calvinists portray God could give us a God who is “loving” in any sense of the word.  That aside, if you’re a Calvinist read this book and if you’re not a Calvinist you might want to give it a go too.

Post-postscript: The first and only book by Smith I had read was Who’se Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church.  I recall it being a rewarding read, moving through the shallow stereotypes of “postmodernism”.   He has a new book coming out pretty soon called Who’s Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency and Creaturehood, which looks intriguing.  But I am most excited for his book on the great philosopher Charles Taylor.  Taylor’s A Secular Age was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and also one of the most difficult.  It is also incredibly important as it seems half the books I read now are quoting it.  Not everyone wants to take a few months to chew on a book like Taylor’s, so hopefully Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor will be read by many.

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